Experts have often touted balanced and flake-free scalps as the key to healthy hair, but it’s still a somewhat difficult feat to achieve when you can have around 100,000 active follicles on your head at a given time. All that work to comb through can make you want to give up on detoxing scalp treatments.
"Everyone should exfoliate their scalp," says Diana Pratasiewicz, director of education for Ouai. "The scalp is skin...there is no zipper that separates the scalp from the face. Imagine if you never exfoliated your face? You’d see clogged pores, uneven skin tone, and possible breakouts." When the scalp is left unexfoliated, it can become dry, flaky, itchy, and full of product buildup.
Read on to learn why your scalp needs regular detoxes and how to do them right.
What Is a Scalp Detox?
A scalp "detox" is essentially a method of massaging the scalp by brushing or using an exfoliating scrub, which helps buff away dead skin cells, unclog the pores on your scalp, and clear product buildup from the hair follicles. "A scalp detox is more than just the shampoo," says Evie Johnson, a certified trichologist and owner of E&E Hair Solutions.
"Think of it as a facial. We wash our face every day right? But when you go and get the mask on your face and the steam treatment, stuff like that, that's more of a deep cleanse for your face. It's the same thing with hair." Detoxing the scalp may also help relieve itching, dandruff, and other forms of irritation.
What you eat can also contribute to the amount of buildup you'll have on your scalp. "A lot of times when you want to do a detox, try to stay away from a lot of the dairy products," Johnson says. "That's where most of your buildup is going to come from."
Prevent scalp dryness by staying hydrated: Johnson suggests drinking half of your body weight in water in ounces each day.
How to Tell If You Need a Scalp Detox
According to Lorraine Massey, the cofounder of DevaCurl, Devachan Salons, and Spiral (X, Y, Z) in New York City, a scalp detox is necessary when someone has a significant amount of buildup from hair products. Whenever she observes this occurrence in her clients, she recommends detoxing to rebalance the health of their scalp. “Your scalp is a sensitive area and you can nourish it with very little product,” Massey explains. You might consider a scalp detox if you're experiencing excessive dryness, itching, dandruff, or general scalp discomfort.
"Typically, you'll have a lot of buildup around the follicle, so it's almost like you can't see down in there," Johnson says. "Every four to six weeks, it's time for a detox."
How to Detox Your Scalp
"The most effective way to start to remove debris from the scalp is to do something a lot of people don’t do anymore," says Pratasiewicz. "Brush your hair! Brushing your hair before bed, a shower, or a workout is a great start to removing debris and start the exfoliation process."
If you're already brushing your hair (or want to go the extra mile to detox), then a scalp scrub is a great next step to take. "When exfoliating the scalp with a product like Ouai Scalp and Body Scrub ($38), the goal is to get the product the closest to the scalp as possible," says Pratasiewicz. "Use the pads of your fingertips to massage the product into the scalp. This will help exfoliate without knotting the hair." She continues, "You can also try to meditate, do breathing exercises, or 10 squats while exfoliating. Multitasking at its finest."
Another option is using a clay mask. Johnson swears by TrichoPure's Bentonite Clay Detox Scalp Mask ($30) and Scalp Care by Mizani ($15). When detoxing with a clay mask, she suggests leaving it on for 20-30 minutes. "You can wet the hair or it can be dry, totally up to you," she says. "And then apply to the scalp, taking it in small partings, let it sit then rinse off, then go do your shampoo regimen as normal."
When it comes to detoxing your scalp with a scrub or mask, you might opt for a DIY remedy, a trusted scalp scrub or mask from the market, or an in-salon treatment. Regardless of your methodology, look for these ingredients:
- Aloe Vera Gel: Everyone knows aloe vera gel as a skin soother; however, the gel may also break down dead skin cells and promote healing. It also has conditioning and anti-itch properties that may be beneficial for the scalp. If you’re looking for other ways to use this ingredient in your hair regimen, here’s a detailed aloe vera gel guide.
- Apple Cider Vinegar: This liquid is rich in balancing alkaline nutrients that are ideal for the scalp’s pH level, which should be around 5.5. It also contains potentially hair-boosting components such as vitamin B and C. Additionally, for those who experience irritation, apple cider vinegar might provide anti-inflammatory properties—aka dandruff reduction. However, it is important to use apple cider vinegar with caution if you have open wounds on your scalp due to its acidic qualities. To learn about other hair benefits, check out this thorough apple cider vinegar guide.
- Bentonite Clay: It typically comes in powder form and is loaded with pore-purifying and oil-zapping minerals that are great for clarifying the scalp. If you’d like to find out more, take a look at this encompassing bentonite clay guide.
- Ginger: Massey says ginger has “thermogenic properties”—or, in other words, the potential to create heat through metabolic stimulation, which helps heal the scalp.
- Sugar: When it comes to scalp care, sugar is a great ingredient to look for as the key exfoliant. It may gently buff away sebum and product buildup while hydrating the scalp. If your scalp is irritated, be cautious with abrasive ingredients like sugar as they will irritate the scalp more.
- Salicylic Acid: Salicylic acid removes product buildup from the scalp. It penetrates deeper than other ingredients and can enter into and cleanse the pores and unclog the hair follicles. As a harsher ingredient, it can also be more irritating and should not be used on a scalp with visible abrasions.
DIY Scalp Detox
When it comes down to do-it-yourself scalp treatments, Massey believes getting hands-on with physical means is the most effective way to detoxify the skin. In her own words, she says, “To detox your scalp, I recommend friction, massage, and overall agitation.” These movements on the scalp are meant to help to stimulate blood vessels and remove dead skin, and in turn, promote circulation and health.
While you can certainly use a DIY scrub or bentonite clay mixture, Massey personally advocates for a ginger-lemon water mixture for anyone looking to go the natural route. "Simply put a mixture of ginger, lemon, and water into a spray bottle and apply it directly to the scalp at night, massaging the contents in,” says Massey. Use this mixture once a week (or as needed) for a detox, or use a lighter dose every night as a "scalp tonic."
It is important to whip up this DIY scalp detox carefully. Emmanuel says ginger essential oil and lemon oil can cause irritation to the skin. "[Ginger oil] should be used in low dilution 5 to 6 drops, (1% to 2%)," she explains. "Lemon oil should be used in low dilution. Lemon oil used with 12 drops or more per one once is phototoxic. Phototoxic means the oil can cause burning, blistering, or discoloration of the skin when the person is exposed to sunlight. I would recommend this detox water blend be shampooed out the next day before being exposed to sunlight."
Over-the-Counter Scalp Scrubs
If DIY-ing isn't your jam, there are plenty of scalp products on the market to help loosen those dead skin cells and product buildup. Here are a few of our favorites.
Pratasiewicz suggests this scalp scrub from Ouai to gently exfoliate the skin and unclog pores. The formula keeps the skin hydrated with nourishing and moisturizing ingredients and also doubles as a body scrub.
This plant-based pick utilizes the resurrection plant's healing and moisturizing properties to essentially "resurrect" scalp and hair health, according to the brand.
This two-part kit includes a nourishing oil and a detoxifying base meant to loosen and remove buildup while delivering skin-loving nutrients to the scalp.
Many salons offer in-house treatments to help detox the scalp, which provides a more luxurious (and typically more effective) result. Most salons will steam the scalp to help loosen buildup, then they'll thoroughly scrub the entire scalp with an over-the-counter option. The treatment is usually complete with a scalp-focused shampoo and conditioner. We recommend the Hair and Scalp Mist Treatment at Spiral (X, Y, Z) in New York City.
Johnson says she will assess the client's scalp first and decide on either a salicylic acid or bentonite clay treatment. "That will sit on, then it will get shampooed and conditioned," she says. "Then it will go under the steamer, which is a hydrator: it steams like when you're getting your face steamed, you're going to steam your scalp."
Tips For Detoxing Natural Hair
Hair that has a natural curl or texture may make it harder to reach your scalp for detoxification compared to those who have straight hair. Fret not, however. It’s not an impossible thing to do.
- Look for scalp treatments that have a pointed nozzle (like the Kristin Ess Instant Exfoliating Scalp Scrub, $14) so you will have precision during your application.
- Make sure hair is adequately detangled before you attempt a scalp detox. This will ensure your fingers and/or application tool will be able to get through.
- Work in small sections, so you can avoid tangling your hair in the process. You should also have an easier time targeting your scalp this way.
- Use clips or frizz-resistant scrunchies to help you keep your strands out of the way while you work. You will be more organized and capable of keeping track of the areas you went over already.
When to See a Professional
A scalp detox shouldn't be used as the primary remedy for a serious scalp condition. You may need to see a professional if you "start seeing a lot of flaking, buildup, and burning," says Johnson.
NYU Langone Health. Types of hair loss.
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